NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

How Unresolved Trauma Affects How You Feel About Yourself

Psychological trauma often has a negative impact on how you feel about yourself.  In trauma therapy, like EMDR, the psychotherapist explores the negative beliefs that developed for the client as a result of trauma (see my articles: How EMDR Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

How Unresolved Trauma Affects How You Feel About Yourself

These beliefs often remain unconscious before the client seeks help in psychotherapy.  But these negative beliefs often get enacted in other areas of the client's life without his or her realizing it before therapy.

Depending upon the kind of trauma and the lasting impact, these negative beliefs might include feeling unlovable, unworthy, powerless, weak and so on.  This is especially true if there weren't people who intervened at the time of the trauma on the traumatized person's behalf.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How Trauma Affects How You feel About Yourself
The following fictional vignette, which is similar to many actual therapy cases, illustrates how trauma can have a negative lasting impact on self perception:

After she experienced herself as being helpless in a situation at work where she was being sexually harassed, Nina sought help in psychotherapy.

Nina explained to her psychotherapist that she had always done well in college and in her prior jobs.  She was able to negotiate whatever challenges presented themselves in all her prior educational and career endeavors.

However, in her new position as a director, she felt undermined by a manager, Alan, who felt that he should have been the one promoted into the new position--not Nina.  Not only did Alan voice his anger about her getting the promotion when he felt he was better qualified, but he also tried to belittle her by making comments with sexual innuendos when no one else was around.

Nina told her therapist that she ignored him at first but, over time, Alan's sexual comments were more brazen and hostile.  She knew he was trying to intimidate her, and she thought about reporting him to her executive director and the human resources department, but she was afraid that no one would believe her because it would be her word against his, and Alan was generally well liked.

At the same time, Nina knew that she needed to do something because Alan's remarks were becoming more outrageous, and it was getting to the point where she dreaded going to work and encountering him alone in the pantry or on the elevator.  She was losing sleep over it, and over time, this problem was taking up more and more of her thoughts.  It was also interfering with her work.

The psychotherapist explored Nina's background and discovered that Nina was sexually abused from the time she was five until she was 18 by a paternal uncle, who was much loved by the family.  The sexual abuse included making sexual comments to her, kissing her on the mouth and fondling her breasts (see my article: Overcoming the Psychological Effects of Sexual Abuse).

With much trepidation, when Nina was seven, told her mother about the uncle's inappropriate behavior. But her mother refused to believe her.  Not only didn't she believe Nina, but she punished her because the mother believed that Nina was lying.

As a result, the sexual abuse continued whenever the uncle found an opportunity to be alone with Nina (similar to her situation at work with Alan), and Nina felt that, somehow, she was at fault for what her uncle was doing.

The only reason the abuse stopped was that Nina went away to college.  Determined to put the sexual abuse out of her mind, she focused on her college work and excelled in her studies.  After college, she shared an apartment with friends, and she never attended family events where she knew her paternal uncle would be there.

Until Alan began sexually harassing her, Nina thought that she had overcome her history of sexual abuse.  But she realized that she was feeling just as powerless in her current situation as she felt when she was a child.

Her psychotherapist recommended that Nina could take the situation at work one step at a time, so if Nina was too afraid to file a formal complaint with her human resources department, she could speak with her human resource manager informally to find out her rights.

Her therapist also told Nina that it appeared that her earlier trauma of feeling powerless was triggering feelings of powerlessness in her current situation.  She explained to Nina that she had an unresolved trauma that was complicating her current situation, and she recommended that they use EMDR therapy to help Nina to resolve the original trauma involving the sexual abuse with her uncle as well as the fact that her mother didn't believe or support her when she told her mother about the abuse (see my article: EMDR Therapy - When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

Nina took practical steps to speak with the human resource (HR) manager about what would happen if she filed a sexual harassment complaint.  To her surprise and relief, the HR manager told Nina that she was already conducting an investigation and, based on a complaint from a few other women in Nina's department, she was about to contact Nina to ask her if she was being harassed.

Since Nina had come to her on her own, the HR manager asked her specifically about her experiences with Alan, and Nina was able to tell her about the sexual comments that he made to her.  A few weeks later, based on several women coming forward to complain about Alan's behavior, he was terminated.

At the same time, Nina and her psychotherapist did EMDR therapy to work on the many years of sexual abuse that she experienced by her uncle.  They also worked on how betrayed Nina felt that her mother thought she was lying.

Nina was somewhat surprised that, after all the years that had gone by, she could still be triggered into feeling powerless in her situation at work.

Their work with EMDR therapy was neither quick nor easy but, her therapist explained, EMDR therapy tends to be faster and more effective than regular talk therapy with unresolved trauma.

Over time, Nina was able to work through the unresolved trauma so that it was no longer affecting her.  She no longer felt powerless in relation to her memory of the abuse or in her current life.

In fact, when another male colleague tried to sexually harass her, Nina put him in his place and told him in no uncertain terms that if he did not stop, she would report him.  Startled by her assertiveness, the colleague seemed intimidated by Nina.  He apologized for his behavior, and he stopped making inappropriate comments.

Feeling Empowered After Resolving Prior Trauma

Afterward, Nina felt she had handled the situation well, and she told her psychotherapist that she felt good about herself.

Shortly after that, Nina had a long talk with her mother about the sexual abuse that occurred when Nina was child.  Her mother believed her this time.  She apologized and they began to work on improving their relationship.  Her mother also forbid the uncle from coming to any more family events.  With Nina's permission, her mother also told other family members so that they would be aware of his behavior and prevent any other children from being abused.

This brief fictional vignette illustrates that, even when a client thinks that s/he had suppressed the negative emotions associated with an early trauma, these feelings can get triggered in a current situation.

The unresolved trauma remains unmetabolized just under the surface, and it can remain there for many years until it gets triggered again.

Trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, can help clients to overcome traumatic experiences in a more effective way than regular talk therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are struggling with unresolved trauma, you owe it to yourself to get help in trauma therapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to overcome unresolved trauma so you can free yourself from your history and lead a more fulfilling life (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article:  How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

As a trauma therapist, I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved trauma.  

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.